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Terror threat lowered to yellow

From John King and Kelli Arena

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge

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Despite the cancellation of 14 international flights, travelers seem determined not to give in to security fears
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Officials say it may never be known if a terror attack was prevented. CNN's Kelli Arena reports.
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Department of Homeland Security
George W. Bush
Tom Ridge
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration lowered the national terror threat alert level from high to elevated on Friday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced, but he stressed that the United States is not letting down its guard.

Ridge said in a televised news conference that "added vigilance and security" will remain in "certain locales and certain areas within the private sector."

Sources have told CNN that those sectors include aviation, key ports and some nuclear plants, as well as cities such as Washington, Las Vegas, New York which has been on high alert since September 11, 2001 and possibly Los Angeles.

Ridge refused to elaborate.

"We don't want to broadcast to everybody where we're going to be doing this, but those areas and elements within the private sector, they have already been contacted and they understand that for the time being we want to maintain a similar level of security," Ridge said.

Officials were "still concerned about continuing threats," but the conditions that led to the decision to raise the alert level from "yellow" to "orange" have passed, Ridge said.

"I know that we are all thankful that nothing happened. The holidays have passed. The potential danger that large gatherings present during the holidays has passed. They passed safely and without incident," he said.

Raising the threat level serves as a deterrent and the increased security can disrupt potential terrorist operations, Ridge said, adding that it could be weeks or months before authorities determine whether any attacks were actually prevented.

"Let me emphasize that, although we've returned to yellow, we have not let our guard down," he said. "Yellow still means that we are at an elevated risk of attack."

When the Department of Homeland Security raised the threat level December 21 from yellow to orange, it warned that al Qaeda may use international flights to launch attacks on the United States.

The move followed a "substantial increase" in intelligence pointing to possible al Qaeda attacks, Ridge said at the time.

Within days, the agency ordered international air carriers to place armed government officers on some flights to, from and over the United States.

Authorities also delayed some international flights, provided air support over some cities and began using fingerprints and other biometrics to identify passengers entering the United States.

Ridge said that safety was his agency's top priority, but officials were working to minimize the inconvenience.

"Everything we do is designed to keep planes flying, bring loved ones closer, enable sports fans to gather, help businesses stay open; in other words, to keep the country moving," Ridge said.

He said he had spoken with representatives from France and Great Britain, Spain and Mexico to try to create "a better protocol to deal with the threat information that led to either the (flight) cancellations or the delays."

Also on Friday, the State Department reminded Americans overseas to remain alert due to a high level of concern that al Qaeda terrorists are "preparing to strike U.S. interests abroad."

"The U.S. government remains deeply concerned about the security of U.S. citizens overseas," the State Department said.

The "worldwide caution" went on to say the State Department expects "al Qaeda will strive for new attacks designed to be more devastating than the September 11 attack, possibly involving nonconventional weapons such as chemical or biological agents."

In that same warning to Americans overseas, the State Department said, "We also cannot rule out that al Qaeda will attempt a second catastrophic attack within the U.S."

The United States last raised the domestic terrorism threat level to orange May 20, 2003, after suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco that were blamed on al Qaeda. That alert lasted 10 days before the threat level was returned to yellow.

Other orange alerts were raised in 2002 around the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks and in February 2003, on the eve of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March.

CNN correspondents John King and Kelli Arena contributed to this report.

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